Oral Health: How Is Diet Linked to Tooth Decay?

Oral Health: How Is Diet Linked to Tooth Decay?

Society often makes heart-healthy decisions, so what about choosing healthy options for your oral health? Certain foods can negatively impact your oral health, while others provide your teeth with the nutrients they need to maintain their strength and overall health.

It is not only important to avoid certain foods that harm your teeth and gums, but it is critical that you consume foods that promote food health. The following foods are those that should be avoided in certain forms.


The foods you eat have a direct impact on your oral health. Sugar is one of the key ingredients that’s linked to tooth decay. Research has found that certain types of sugar directly threaten one’s oral health. This is due to the combination of sugar, saliva, and bacteria. Before we address how this occurs, let’s focus on the different types of sugar.

There are many types of sugar, but researchers have separated these sugars into two broad categories. This focuses on both intrinsic and extrinsic sugars. What’s the difference? Well, intrinsic sugars are naturally found in foods, most commonly sourced from fruits and vegetables.

These sugars are found within the cell walls of these foods. Basically, these sugars are naturally occurring. Although these sugars are still linked to potential tooth decay, they are encouraged, due to their health benefits. You can take preventative measures against these sugars, which are discussed below.

Extrinsic sugars are those that are added to processed food products. They can also be found naturally in food, just not within the cell walls. Prime examples of these naturally concurring sugars are those found in milk and honey. With the exception of milk and honey, extrinsic sugars are the main concern regarding tooth decay and poor health.

To better understand this process, let’s examine the effects of sugar consumption on teeth. Once sugar is consumed (especially sucrose), your mouth begins to produce a combination of carbohydrates and protein molecules. As this combination sticks to your teeth, it creates plaque.

When taking a proactive approach, you will want to practice preventative measures. This means that you should be brushing and flossing regularly, avoiding plaque build-up. You should also be conscious of your diet; consuming enough calcium, eating fewer sucrose-containing snacks, and consuming complex carbs that are lower in sugar.

Non-Milk Extrinsic Sugars

While focusing on sugar and tooth decay, non-milk extrinsic sugars cause the most issues. The main sources of these sugars are soft drinks, preserves, jams, confectionery, cereal products, and fresh squeezed juice. When limiting these types of sugars, you’re able to improve dental health, reduce calorie intake, and maintain a more balanced diet.

Most Common Foods Containing Non-Milk Extrinsic Sugars

  • Confectionary/Candy
  • Cake and cookies
  • Buns and pastries
  • Dried fruit (although healthy, they stick to teeth, harming teeth long after eating. When possible, opt for fresh fruit)
  • Table sugar (which is commonly added to drinks and used within food preparation)
  • Sugary breakfast cereals
  • Jams, honey, and preserves
  • Ice cream
  • Fruit that is stored in syrup
  • Fresh fruit juice
  • Soft drinks
  • Sugary milk-based beverages
  • Sugar-containing alcoholic beverage

If you are looking to increase sweetness, but need to limit your sugar intake, you can opt for artificial sweeteners. These are not linked to tooth decay and are low in calories. If a individual is above the age of five, these alternatives can be used. However, it’s ideal to limit your intake of both sugar and artificial sweetener.

If you would like to consume fruit juices for instance, do so at meal times. Also, get into the habit of reading labels. This will allow you to keep track of what you and your family are consuming. Focus on food products that are low in sugar, salt, and fat. This will not only aid in your oral health, but benefits all internal systems.

While reading labels, ingredients are listed in order of weight (highest to lowest). If sugar is one of the first few ingredients, chances are, that food item is high in sugar. There are many variations of sugar, especially in terms of labelling. A good tip, is looking for ingredients that end in ‘ose,’ as they indicate a sugar-based ingredient.

Please be aware of the following common added sugars:

  • Sugar
  • Brown or cane sugar
  • Powdered sugar (confectioners)
  • Raw sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Maltose
  • Fructose, sucrose, glucose
  • Dextrin
  • Honey
  • Syrup (malt, maple, invert)
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Molasses

Acidic Food Items

Sugar is the number one concern, but there is also a concern regarding acidity levels. Although nutritious, foods such as citrus fruits and tomatoes, can affect your enamel. This is due to their high levels of acidity. When choosing these items, consume them as part of a meal.

So, what exactly is enamel? Tooth enamel is important for both the shape and structure of one’s teeth. It is a thin layer, which can be broken down through acidic foods. It has been found that those who regularly consume acidic foods, are more prone to tooth erosion. Since this damage is irreversible, it is important to be aware of the foods that cause potential erosion:

  • Fruits contain citric acid
  • Soft drinks contain phosphoric acid
  • Products that are fermented, such as yogurt, contain lactic acid
  • Wine and grapes contain tartaric acid

What should be done about these acidic foods? Since various acidic foods are essential for a balanced diet, there are ways that you can minimize their negative effects. Use alkaline or neutral toothpastes; or chew sugar-free gum. If you are unable to brush your teeth after a meal, you can eat a piece of cheese or drink milk. This helps counteract the effects of acid, by diluting them and washing them away. Fluoride rinses are also recommended, helping you regain lost minerals.

Foods That Prevent Food Decay

As mentioned, there are foods that can help you protect your teeth against possible decay. Focus on some of the following options when creating a recommended meal plan.

What to Consider Regarding Healthy Choices Why It's Relevant

Calcium-rich foods

Calcium is needed to promote strong teeth and bones. This is especially true for young children, who are still developing. Dairy products are of course a great option. Remember, calcium is independent of fat-content, so low-fat options are recommended. Calcium is also found in foods such as canned fish (with bones), bok choy, almonds, and dried beans.

Fiber content

According to the American Dental Association, high-fiber foods have a detergent effect on your teeth and mouth. They also increase salvia, which is one of the best natural defences against gum disease and cavities. This is due to saliva’s ability to neutralize acids. It also helps restore lost minerals, due to its slight phosphate and calcium content. Consume more fruits, vegetables, nuts and bran.

Whole grains

B-complex vitamins and iron, help promote gum health. Whole grains also contain the mineral magnesium, which is essential for healthy teeth and bones. Once again, whole grain options provide fiber. Some of the best options include brown rice, oatmeal, whole grain cereal, and more.

Foods that contain fluoride

While drinking fluoridated water or consuming a product that contains fluoride, it aids in oral health. When foods are commercially prepared, they may contain fluoride.

Sugary Snacks

As discussed, sugary snacks are not the best option when eating between meals. Not only is sugar linked to the formation of plaque, but it also works with plaque to damage enamel. Focus on healthy snack choices which are low in salt, fat, and sugar.

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